Why coping skills are so important
Coping skills are those things teenagers and children do when faced with a challenge. We all have them but some of us have better one or use them more often.
Have you ever had a friend who had a traumatic experience and lost a lot of weight in a short period of time or gained a lot? That’s because they have used one coping skill. Either eating or not eating, over and over again to cope with their feelings from that experience.
“Problems are not the problem. Coping is the problem.”
What are coping skills?
Coping skills are the temporary things we do to help us cope with stress or a challenge. Think about what your first response is to hearing bad news… Do you need to vacuum, eat chocolate, have a cigarette, get a cup of coffee, go for a walk or bake something?
We all have coping skills. Some people have more than others, and some people have more effective ones.
Children start with only a couple of coping skills. They’ll cry or throw a tantrum, and as they grow, they learn more and more. Part of adolescence is about refining the list of coping skills.
It’s about identifying the ones that work best for them and lead to outcomes they can live with. This is part of what we call building resilience, which you can read more about in my article on resilience.
When it comes to coping skills, it’s all about the quality of the skills, more than the quantity.
It doesn’t matter if someone only has one or two coping skills. But it does matter if those happen to be taking drugs or drinking large amounts of alcohol.
To help illustrate coping skills, meet Jarrod.
The story of Jarrod
Jarrod finds maintaining friendships draining; he’s an introvert. If he’s forced to spend too much time with other people, he can get overwhelmed and sometimes self-harms.
When Jarrod went on his last school camp he got agitated during a games night. It was full of lots of silly mini games to help everyone get to know one another and feel more comfortable. In response, Jarrod started yelling at the other kids and ran off to his dorm. Now he was in trouble with the teachers.
Jarrod’s main coping skill is seclusion. Creating some peace and quiet to process his thought and feelings. Introverts need time alone to recharge their batteries and find some inner peace to mix well with others. If you have someone like Jarrod in your home or work setting, it’s important to give them some alone time. Particularly during camps or family holidays where it’s not so easy for Jarrod to get be alone.
“Obstacles… are developmentally necessary: they teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, resilience and resourcefulness.” – Naomi Wolf
Helping young people develop healthy coping skills
You should be able to spot a coping skill a mile away now. By thinking about the outcome, you’ll also be able to identify whether it’s an effective one or not.
Jarrod’s coping skill isn’t a bad one, but he needs some others if he’s going to cope well in social situations. How do you do this?
First of all, it’s no use telling Jarrod that he’s chosen the wrong way to cope with this situation. He’s reached a point that has triggered his “flight” or “fight” self-protection mechanism.
Giving him some time to calm down on his own isn’t a bad thing. Pass him a box of tissues and tell him you’ll give him a bit of alone time so he knows you get his coping skill.
Then you need to have that chat. Get him to “rewind the tape” back to when he first started feeling overwhelmed. Was it during the games or earlier in the day?
What feelings and thoughts was he experiencing? What signs was his body giving him to tell him he was feeling stressed?
Then get him to brainstorm what he could have done at that point to help him feel more in control. Work your way through the day, identifying stress points and alternative options. Go through each activity, right up to the evening games when he lost control.
Often you can see a pattern of coping skills that would have worked at all the trigger points. In Jarrod’s case these could have been asking for some alone time or talking to one of the teachers.
Look at how things might have happened if he’d done that, and how different his feelings would have been now. Then talk about what tomorrow looks like and what triggers might be in that day that he needs to prepare for.
Talk about what the rest of the night looks like for Jarrod, and what consequences he’ll have to face for his behaviour. It’s important to make sure that there are some fair consequences, so that he learns that the way he coped wasn’t a good choice.
It might just be that he has to apologise to the people he yelled at. Or he may need to talk to the principal when he gets back to school. Keep the consequences related to the mistake and reinforce better coping skills.
In my article on anxiety I looked at five ways you can help kids cope with stressful situations. For some ideas about the range of coping skills, have a look at these websites:
What other coping skills have you seen work for a teen or tween? I’d love you to share your ideas in the comments.